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The Fabric of Fitness

Designing activewear for the long-ignored older body, Arizona-born clothing designer Shirley Kenan is outfitting America’s “actively aging.”

Jimmy Magahern | Jun 26, 2012, 3:06 p.m.

Now, Kenan’s got the process down to a kind of long-distance assembly line. “I’ll sit down with a sketchpad while I’m watching a Diamondbacks or Suns or Coyotes game on TV and just start sketching out something,” says the self-proclaimed sports nut. “From that original concept — and these are all my own designs — I send the sketches to a lady in southern California, whose function is to make the patterns from the sketches. I give her details, decide on what fabric and colors we’re going to be using, and she can adapt everything into a workable pattern.

“From there a sample garment is made,” she continues. “That comes back to me, and we work on getting anything changed that doesn’t look or feel right. Then as soon as I sign off on the design, they grade it, set it up for all sizes, mark the patterns, cut it, sew it together, and eventually the NEDLady logo goes on it, and it’s done!”

Although she admits her part is the most fun part of designing clothes — “I get to think them up!” — Kenan says running a clothing company at age 70 can be a bit overwhelming.

“It’s very hard work,” she says. “It’s an amazing thing when you discover all the details involved in it.”

Nevertheless, she has no plans of quitting any time soon. “If I live to be, like my mother did, 99 years old, maybe I can design for a long time yet,” she says. “I love what I do. Can you tell?”

Not all Made the Same

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Kenan designs activewear with so much comfort and style, it’s easy to go straight from the tennis court to the clubhouse.

While designing activewear for what they call “the actively aging” has really begun taking off in the UK, where a joint research council headed up by the University of Wales, Newport, has founded an initiative called the Design for Ageing Well Project, over here in America, Shirley Kenan is pretty much the only player in the game.

“I am it, as far as this country is concerned!” she says. “I really have no competition in this niche.”

Industry observers back up Kenan’s claim. “I have not seen a lot in this area,” admits Colin Milner, CEO of the International Council on Active Aging, a network of over 9,000 organizations which bills itself as the world’s largest senior fitness association and a prime information source on aging-related issues. “I have also seen zero research on the topic.”

Not so in Europe, where Jane McCann at the Smart Clothes and Wearable Technology Research Centre at the University of Wales, has partnered with professors at the universities of Westminster, Salford, Ulster and the London College of Fashion to address the development of sports lines for the aging baby boomer market. McCann believes this growing majority of the world’s population is a group accustomed to making choices about clothing designs all of their lives, yet one that is suddenly feeling left out of the sportswear market. She says designers should be asking active older adults what they specifically desire in sportswear to enhance their well-being and quality of life, instead of pushing products on them designed for younger bodies. “The key,” McCann says, “is user engagement in co-design, to identify user needs for real wearability and usability.”

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